State BOE asked for “fair and impartial” hearing on Nicholas County school consolidation proposal

By Shauna Johnson in News

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It’s not clear when the West Virginia Board of Education will take up Nicholas County’s school consolidation proposal.

On Wednesday, the Board limited its agenda to training for new board members after allowing only one representative from a waiting Nicholas County delegation to speak briefly.

The designee, Dr. Gus Penix, president of the Nicholas County Board of Education, wanted to know why Nicholas County’s amended Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plans, or CEFP, was not included on Wednesday’s agenda as, he claimed, had been confirmed after a March 20 BOE meeting when it was also not addressed.

“You, the state Board, are the parent agency of all 55 county school systems and it is your obligation to hear the needs of all 55 counties as they request to be heard,” Penix told the BOE members.

In March, the Nicholas County Board of Education unanimously approved a consolidation proposal that could potentially be implemented fully by the close of the 2019-2020 school year.

That plan cannot proceed without approval from the state Board of Education.

As proposed, Nicholas County High School, Richwood High School and Nicholas County Career and Technical Center would be consolidated into one 250,000 square foot facility while Richwood Middle School and Summersville Middle School would merge into one school covering 97,047 square feet.

Richwood High, Richwood Middle and Summersville Middle were destroyed in the June 2016 flood. Students from those schools have been in alternative space since the start of the 2016-2017 school year.

Rebuilding will happen with guidance and funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The chosen school sites are at the Glade Creek Business Park in Summersville, what the state School Building Authority has identified as “closest to the center of the enrollment area.”

Flood damage is one factor in the consolidation plans, according to Nicholas County school officials, along with declining student enrollment.

There’s been vocal opposition, though, to plans to not rebuild in Richwood and the proposal is being challenged in court.

Governor Jim Justice has been a public advocate for the City of Richwood keeping its schools.

“We know that you are appointed by the governor, we also know that the governor is vehemently opposed to our proposed consolidation plan,” Penix told the BOE Wednesday, before requesting a special meeting next week to take up the Nicholas County plan.

He said the consolidation proposal deserved a “fair and impartial hearing of the facts.”

“Over the past six years, I have observed the state Board of Education’s meetings, as an employee of the state Board, as a citizen of the state of West Virginia,” Penix said Wednesday.

“I have never seen or heard of a county Board of Education being barred from appearing before this Board to have its CEFP amended, never once. This is most unusual.”

BOE members and staff with the West Virginia Department of Education did not immediately respond to the comments from Penix in the meeting.

“We are conscious of time deadlines,” was a message included on Wednesday’s online agenda. “The state superintendent is already working with and will continue to work with all state and federal authorities to make sure West Virginia receives maximum funding and that other deadlines are met in the areas of accountability and assessment.”

As of now, June 25 is the deadline for the finalization of agreement between FEMA and Nicholas County, but an extension is possible if certain criteria are met. June 25 will mark one year since the federal disaster declaration for the flood was issued.

The state School Building Authority canceled a previously scheduled Thursday meeting to address Nicholas County’s CEFP following expected action from the BOE a day earlier. The SBA delayed a vote in March to allow the state Board to weigh in first.

On Wednesday, the Board agenda was dedicated to educating members about their responsibilities, as defined in the West Virginia Constitution, along with law, policy, precedent and education system financing.

“Part of what we’re doing today and, really, all of what we’re doing today is professional development and training,” said Tom Campbell, state BOE president. “I think as we look at the West Virginia education system, I’m learning a lot and I’ve been around 20 years.”

To start the meeting, West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry administered ceremonial oaths to the new board members along with state Superintendent Steve Paine.

Paine, who previously served as state superintendent from 2005-2011, was rehired in March to replace outgoing Superintendent Michael Martirano.

Governor Justice has two additional seats to fill on the BOE.

Chuck Hatfield, a former Putnam County superintendent, resigned for family health reasons.

On Sunday, the West Virginia Senate did not confirm the appointment of Barbara Whitecotton, a former Hardy County superintendent, who had served since January. Nick Casey, Justice Administration chief of staff, said Whitecotton’s name was pulled from consideration at the request of the Senate Confirmations Committee.